Lexical Investigations: Echelon

ladder, echelon, french, world war iiEchelon

Echelon comes from the French échelon, a word whose literal meaning is “rung of a ladder.” Today the term applies generally to a level or rank of accomplishment or authority, but initially it was confined to military use in reference to a step-like formation of troops.

While echelon entered English in a military context, it was the first and second World Wars that extended the meaning to other nonmilitary sectors. During World War I, the term took on a more generalized sense of a “level” or “subdivision”; World War II broadened echelon’s usage to describe grades and ranks in professions outside the military.

At the same time, English speakers started using echelon to classify institutions or persons they held in high esteem by referring to them as part of the “upper” or “top” echelon. With this in mind, the phrase “social climber” conjures up the image of people who wish to ascend through the various ladder rungs of society until they reach the top.

Popular References

—Row echelon form: In linear algebra, a simplified form of a matrix in which each non-zero row has more leading zeros than the previous row.

—ECHELON: Code name of a global surveillance system developed by the United States National Security Agency (NSA). It operates by intercepting and processing international communications transmitted via communications satellites.

—Third Echelon: A fictional sub-group of the NSA created by Tom Clancy in his Splinter Cell book series.

Related Quotations

“Beyond [the city] were the suburban homes of laborers and low-echelon executives who had carved brass-knuckled niches for themselves in the medium-income bracket.”
—Irving E. Cox, Jr., The Cartels Jungle (1955)

“If a CEO wavers and shows signs of not being confident of which way he wants to go, it sends shudders from the top echelon all the way down the mountain.”
—D. A. Benton, How to think like a CEO (2000)

“[I]t is a monstrous leap from what [a master] can do to what the elite grandmasters (the Fischers and the Karpovs and the Kasparovs) can do, which is why even the top echelon of players often maintain a base of humility beneath their bluster.”
—Michael Weinreb, Game of Kings: A Year Among the Geeks, Oddballs, and Geniuses Who Make Up America’s Top High School Chess Team (2007)

“By echelon we mean a formation in which the subdivisions are placed one behind another, extending beyond and unmasking one another either wholly or in part.”
—James Alfred Moss, Manual of Military Training (1914)

“[T]hey echeloned to the right around the hill, and the 1st Platoon fired into their flank for ten to fifteen minutes; however, they never slacked or broke formation.”
—William T. Bowers, The Line: Combat In Korea, January–February 1951, Volume 1 (2008)

Read our previous post in this series about the word hypochondriac.

A motley combination of Anglo-Saxon, Latin, and Germanic dialects, the English language (more or less as we know it) coalesced between the 9th and 13th centuries. Since then, it has continued to import and borrow words and expressions from around the world, and the meanings have mutated. (Awesome and awful once meant nearly the same thing.) Some specimens in the English vocabulary have followed unusually circuitous routes to their place in the contemporary lexicon, and this series, Lexical Investigations, unpacks those words hiding in our midst.


  1. e -  May 6, 2013 - 5:50 pm

    Claire, you were second

  2. NovaDoesMinecraft -  May 6, 2013 - 6:48 am

    Yo i dont get this word i fact i might make a video about

  3. JWW -  May 3, 2013 - 2:52 pm

    @Mattski: Don’t know when you were in the Corps, but it seems to me that we were drilled in doing “Echelons Right!” and “Echelons Left!” somewhere around the start of the second week in Boot Camp (and used it in many drills thought my stay in the USMC thereafter).

    But, then again, maybe they found that the “new boots” just couldn’t handle such a complex maneuver, and decided to do away with it before the time that you arrived at MCRTD.

  4. Ole TBoy -  May 3, 2013 - 6:37 am

    Thanks, Tommik, for a usage of which I knew nothing–REMF. What fun!

  5. George B. -  May 2, 2013 - 7:13 pm

    In Russian language word echelon эшелон (borrowed from French I guess) means train route consisting of many connected railroad cars. Also it means layer of defense positions starting from the front line trenches going backwards.

  6. Moony -  May 2, 2013 - 1:35 pm

    Wow. I’m going to have to find a way to use this in my vocabulary.

  7. S R SAIFI -  May 2, 2013 - 8:31 am

    Beautiful article we the lovers of “English” may not miss.This also means HIERARCHY.

  8. Tommik -  May 2, 2013 - 2:01 am

    Surprised you haven’t included another great wartime usage – REMF – or perhaps not

  9. Morgan -  May 1, 2013 - 4:46 pm

    This word first caught my attention in Lana Del Rey’s song “National Anthem” when she sings this in the beginning of the song:

    I’m your national anthem. God, you’re so handsome. Take me to the Hamptons, Bugatti Veyron. He loves to romance ‘em, reckless abandon. Holdin’ me or ransom, upper **echelon**.

    (I hope someone else caught that word if they had ever heard that song. Now I get what the word means! Thanks dictionary.com!☺ )

  10. Jo RE Bridges -  May 1, 2013 - 2:33 pm

    30 Seconds to Mars – the echelon!

  11. Albert Mazing -  May 1, 2013 - 8:55 am

    A good example of this would be: Albert Mazing is in the top echelon according to the order of replies concerning the subject.

  12. ECHELON | BLOGCHI@mayopia.com -  May 1, 2013 - 7:29 am

    [...] — Everybody Knowing the imaginative unknowing BUT the — Wait for it — Political ‘Echelon’. –>>L.T.Rhyme This entry was posted in DICTCOMHOTWORD, L.T.Rhyme and tagged LT, [...]

  13. Claire -  April 30, 2013 - 7:54 am

    First comment! yay!!! I am at school i am so boredddd.. THis is really interesting by the way:)

  14. Mattski -  April 30, 2013 - 7:53 am

    In military terminology (my experience in Marine Corps terminology, anyway) echelon also refers to a division of labor or responsibility. For example, first echelon maintenance performed by vehicle crewmen might include checking oil and water levels, while second or third echelon maintenance would be conducted by mechanics and includes more complex procedures such as tune-ups, rebuilds, etc.

  15. Hunter -  April 30, 2013 - 5:18 am



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